As we collectively enter another “wedding season,” and couples begin the long, difficult, and rewarding process of building a marriage, it is important to remember that the process itself has many phases. Traditional wedding vows recognize this reality; they emphasize the promise to stick with your spouse through better, worse, sickness, health, richer, and poorer. You will inevitably face all of these realities in one form or another, but today we turn our attention toward the most exciting, most hopeful, and most dangerous phase: the Honeymoon Period.
The Honeymoon Period is a real phenomenon, but it actually has a scientific name: It’s called limerence. Limerence is the early phase of love, driven primarily by novelty and chemistry. The joy of discovery and the thrill of forming a new relationship are accelerated with the help of bonding hormones like dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin. Limerence is the advertiser’s view of love: infatuation, strong sexual attraction, and consequence-less moonlit walks on deserted beaches. It’s the love that just sort of “happens” to you. This is what makes it dangerous.
The problem with the Honeymoon Period is that it ends. At a purely scientific level, limerence lasts only about two years. New becomes normal. Chemistry becomes comfortable. When this happens, the real work of building a relationship becomes apparent, but this is often a shock to the system. Couples that rely too much on inertia and adrenaline in the early days can struggle to make the transition into more mature phases of love, such as attunement, trust, and true intimacy.
The role of chemistry cannot be overstated. Consider oxytocin, one of the most active hormones during limerence. Oxytocin is secreted during orgasm and also during breast-feeding. It’s the hormone most responsible for bonding, but it’s also the hormone of impulsivity and bad judgment. Because of this, couples are more likely to miss some of the red flags that may be present early in a relationship. It’s pretty easy to ignore that your date was rude to the waiter when your brain is telling you that he’s your soul mate. Even if you don’t ignore it, you’ll be quicker to forgive than you will be two years later, when he’s still acting like a son of a gun. (You’ll have to trust me on this one.)
When the hormones wear off and the novelty fades, you realize that mature love isn’t something that just happens to you: It’s something you work toward. But don’t wait until then! Use the following priorities to plan for the end of limerence now.
Prioritize Friendship Over Fantasy: Many young couples get caught up in the excitement of an elaborate proposal, the perfect wedding, and a honeymoon in the fantasy suite, but they fail to nurture the reality of what sustains a relationship. Actively pursue knowledge of your spouse or fiancé. Ask questions, tell stories, get to know the cast of characters in his world. Practice empathy. Make it a habit to learn one new thing about him each day. Find out how he likes to give and receive care, compliments, and even correction. And don’t take this work for granted: It’s the foundation of intimacy.
Prioritize Intimacy Over Intercourse: Limerence is marked by a heightened sense of sexual attraction and activity. Sex is a wonderful and necessary part of marriage, but it should not be your primary source of intimacy. Be sure to invest in emotional and spiritual intimacy as well. This could manifest in many ways: couples therapy, praying together, or weekly/daily conversation dates. And when it comes to physical intimacy, learn to talk about it. Get comfortable saying words like penis, clitoris, and orgasm. Using the actual words for things is more intimate than you might imagine. Don’t be afraid to talk in detail about likes and especially dislikes. These conversations are the foundation of sexual chemistry and compatibility over the long term.
Prioritize Compromise Over Compatibility: Early in a relationship, couples tend to focus more on their similarities than their differences. That’s the entire basis of online dating sites. But differences are bound to exist, and when the serotonin wears off you’ll need to grapple with them. Start now by paying attention to and even celebrating the disparate qualities that shape the way you each see the world. These differences are what make you unique as a couple. When those differences become problems, emphasize compromise, but rather than focus on your own needs, actively look for the places where you can agree. Even in the most difficult arguments, there is usually a place where your wants and needs align. Mastering the art of compromise is a lifelong skill.
Making these aspects of your relationship a priority will help you lay the foundation for lasting love. Friendship, intimacy, and compromise are just a few of the advanced skills for a successful marriage, and there’s no reason not to become intentional about them now. You’ll need them when the Honeymoon Period wears off. And here’s the secret: Mastering these skills will make it easier to recreate limerence down the line. (Again, you’ll have to trust me on that.)
I’d love to hear about your experience in the limerence and honeymoon periods. What priorities have you set? What lessons have you learned? Feel free to drop me a note on Facebook at Zach Brittle, LMHC or on Twitter @kzbrittle. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You might also enjoy my New Construction series for pre-marrieds and newlyweds at the Gottman Relationship Blog.
This article was edited after it's original publication. A previous version of this article incorrectly identified oxytocin as serotonin.